Runnels, 69, was the son of the late Harold “Mud” Runnels, a Democratic member of the U.S. House from New Mexico for 10 years, until 1980. His survivors include his 92-year-old mother, Dorothy Runnels.
Runnels died in his sleep at the family home in Ruidoso, according to his brother, Matthew Runnels of Silver City. He was found Thursday.
“His passing is way too soon and should serve as a reminder to all of us that life is fragile,” said former Gov. Toney Anaya, a Democrat under whom Runnels served from 1983 to 1986.
Anaya remembered him as “a dedicated public servant” who was always pressing him for more responsibility in the lieutenant governor’s job.
“He wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps,” Anaya said.
And Runnels had a “keen political mind. He knew what buttons had to be pushed to advance an agenda,” the former governor recalled.
Runnels was born in Arkansas and grew up in Lovington.
In 1986 and in 2000, he ran unsuccessfully for his late father’s 2nd District seat in Congress. He was on the Santa Fe City Council from 1976 to 1980, and worked as the director of Common Cause in New Mexico.
Runnels was twice elected district attorney in the fast-growing 13th Judicial District – Valencia, Sandoval and Cibola counties – serving eight years from 1993 to 2000.
A year after taking office, he said being DA “is like being drafted into a war and being shipped out to the front lines without ever having to go through basic training.”
Runnels told the Journal when he left the DA’s office that he enjoyed public service.
“Politics is often a pain, but having the chance to do something good in the public arena is real satisfying,” he said.
“Mike was a Renaissance man whose span of interests was amazingly wide,” said Carroll Cagle of Albuquerque, a longtime friend.
“He was one of the most brilliant people I have ever known, read tons of books on many subjects, and seemed to remember everything he read,” Cagle said in a statement.
Runnels’ other survivors include his sons Joshua of North Carolina and Sean of California; brother Phillip of Tularosa; and sister Eydie of Midland, Texas, according to Cagle.
Services are pending.